Myth and reality in Cuban electoral system

May Day rally in Havana.

There are many myths about Cuba that the mainstream media happily reinforces, especially about Cuba’s democratic processes.

Contrary to media assertions, in Cuba there are general elections, the last ones taking place in 2007-08. In these elections, deputies to the parliament (National Assembly of People’s Power) and delegates to the provincial assemblies are elected for a five-year mandate.

Just before these elections, delegates to the municipal assemblies are elected, but only for a mandate of two-and-a-half years. In January 2008, elections took place for (among others) deputies to the National Assembly. All citizens 16 years and older had the right to vote.

The nominations for elections to the parliament are organised by the candidacy commissions at the national, provincial and municipal levels. These commissions are composed of representatives from all the mass organisations (but not the Communist Party nor the Communist Youth organisation), that is unions, students, small farmers, women and neighbourhood committees.

These representatives are selected by these mass organisations as a result of analysis and consultation within these organisations.

For the 2008 elections, there were more than 45,000 proposals from the mass organisations for candidates to be elected as deputies to the parliament; these proposals were sent to the candidacy commissions from the mass organisations.

These commissions consulted the people at workplaces, schools and neighbourhoods from where the prospective candidates were proposed. Why is this done? To determine if the proposed candidates are really worthy of the electors’ trust, and if they have the grassroots support to be appropriate as nominees.

This form of nomination has the same grassroots, democratic purpose as the elections to the municipal assemblies.

At grassroots meetings to select candidates, every elector has the right to directly propose any other elector, provided that the person resides in her or his circonscripcion (electoral district/riding). The delegates are to be elected from these circonscripciones.

Let us return to the last elections for the National Assembly. Even after the list of more than 45,000 was reduced to the number of seats in parliament, who has the last word as to who the candidates should be?

It is precisely the elected delegates to the municipal assembly, who were nominated after neighbourhood nomination meetings and then elections from among at least two candidates. Once the list of candidates is finalised, each candidate must receive at least half of the votes to be elected to the National Assembly as deputy.

Once the deputies were elected, the parliament then met on February 24, 2008. One of the first steps was to elect the Council of State from among the deputies. In other words, the Council of State is elected from among those deputies directly elected by universal suffrage, an election in which normally more than 97% of the electors vote.

What’s more, up to half of these elected deputies had been elected as delegates to the municipal assemblies. So, in an innovative manner typical of Cuba, the system integrates grassroots representatives into to the highest level of the state.

No other country in the world has up to half of its deputies, by law, coming from the municipal assembly grassroots; Cuba thus has a sort of double representation.

Cuba does not have a presidential system as in the United States, aside from many other big and obvious differences. To elect the Council of State and its officers, including its president, the parliament temporarily recessed on February 24, 2008 and a secret vote was taken where deputies (including the municipal assembly grassroots delegates) deposited their vote in a ballot box.

The Council of State, including President Raul Castro, was thus elected by the parliamentarian deputies. And so it is false to say that the Council of State is not elected by the people or the parliament; just as it is incorrect to claim that the parliament is not elected.

In the US, only 50-60% of the possible electorate normally votes. Once the votes are divided between the Republicans and Democrats, the US president (who is not elected directly, but rather by electoral colleges — remember Bush vs. Gore) gets about, say, 20% of the votes — a far cry from the minimum 50% required for any elected Cuban.

And so Cubans, through the 2007-08 elections of the municipal assembly delegates and the National Assembly deputies, do indeed have a say as to who should be the president.

Seeing as the municipal delegates were elected in 2007 for a two-and-a-half year mandate, the recent April 25 elections were partial elections, as opposed to general elections. The nomination of candidates for these elections started on February 24.

From the nomination of candidates to the current elections, they are completely separate to the election of the Council of State, or its president, as laid out in the constitution and corresponding laws.

My experience in Cuba, covering several elections over the past 12 years, indicates that there is obviously a big effort to inspire the citizens to vote. But it is not obligatory and no one is pursued or pressured into voting, nor a victim of persecution if they do not vote.

About 3% of the people do not vote. Can you imagine the uproar and unrest if 3% of the population was persecuted because they did not vote?

As far as the right to discuss issues, such as economic problems and freedom of the press — no one ever claimed the Cuban elections were the venue for this.

However, people in many other countries would be jealous of the opportunities in Cuba to regularly discuss in the mass media, workplaces, schools and neighbourhoods all of these issues, and others such as the need to further perfect the political and social system.